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Spurred by Carter, some Baptists meet to build bigger tent.

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"This is an opportunity to reenvision what it means to be Baptist, and especially to build bridges across racial and denominational divides in a way that has never been done before," says David Gushee of Mercer University's school of theology. "It's really a vision of the Christian faith that is driving this."

With the theme of Unity in Christ, one aim is to forge local partnerships among Baptist groups based on Jesus' message on his ministry as found in Luke 4:18. Special workshops will deal with Christian obligations not only to spread the gospel, but also to promote peace with justice, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger.

The four major black Baptist conventions are key players in the gathering, along with Latinos and whites. "This will be the first time in 160 years that black and white Baptists have met in a major meeting in harmony," Carter says.

Meeting bridges political divide

Besides Democrats Carter and former President Clinton, who joined with Baptist leaders last year to announce this week's meeting, participants include Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa, along with bestselling author John Grisham.

Speakers have been told to avoid politics altogether.

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